I Am Copy

Movie title: I Am Legend (2007)
Grade: D+ (1 ½ star)
Rated: PG-13
Summation: Dr. Robert Neville searches for a cure in a world destroyed by disease.
Spoilers ahead: Yes

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I Am Legend is a slow and unspectacular rehashing of zombie apocalypse science fiction. Totally lacking in credibility or appeal, it adds nothing new to the now massive (and still growing) video library of zombie apocalypse films and books. This one is based on Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend.” It is the third movie based on the book.

With the help of good camera work, fancy (but still insufficient) special effects, and a big budget, it feels expensive, which is to say, this was not a flippant project. A lot of thought and production power went into it. But that didn't keep the writers from making some big mistakes.

Incredibly huge, whopping mistake #1) Poisoned humans acquire great strength: We are suspending the laws of reality a bit in the premise of I Am Legend, where a virus not only turns living, healthy individuals into fresh-craving, mindless zombies, but it gives them super strength. Yes, super strength.

What was the vision for I Am Legend, I wonder? It's as though someone was thinking: “If people like zombie movies, then they will really like this one because this zombie movie has not just zombies, but SUPER zombies!” The very idea is dumb.

Now I know what some of you are saying: “This is science fiction. We can’t be too hard on it. Can't we just as easily say that grotesquely transformed humans have super strength with their transformations?” In other words, if we're going to have zombies in the first place, then why not have super ones? The short answer is, because it's cheesy to do so.

In order to understand why, you have to go back to the original zombie movie, the one that, directly or indirectly, every recent one is trying in vain to emulate, The Night of the Living Dead (1968). What made it so incredible was that the resurrected zombies were a threat because of their numbers. They were a dangerous, relentless force because they could do nothing else but swarm the living. It sometimes took some doing even to break a window, but any five men can turn over a car, and so it is stated in the film. The danger was in the numbers. The survivors had the chance to beat them. You could “kill” them again. That gave hope, but sometimes the hope was false. That's what made the film so good.

The notion of super-zombies, with senses heightened to superhuman levels, takes away a realistic dynamic and needlessly exaggerates the story, causing it to lack a basic sense of realism. Nature degenerates. That means we can rightly hypothesize that a germ or radiation could corrupt a living organism and make it into a zombie, but corruption doesn't enhance strength anymore than it does give an increased sense of smell as I Am Legend ridiculously has it. So this mistake alone renders I Am Legend shit-can material.

Big, massive, catastrophic mistake #2) Sunlight harms vampires, and also zombies: As though it needed to be stated, it’s the vampires who are mortally wounded by sunlight, not zombies. It sounded cool to have in the story that you could move around in the day. What good is a daytime zombie movie? Maybe they don't have to gravitate towards the light. Maybe they can still go for an evening meal of sinews and a still-beating heart, no? So it seemed good to have an excuse to keep the action in the night. This superhuman, vampiri-stic zombie angle missed the mark altogether. But it should be said that the script of I Am Legend intended to portray neither vampires, nor zombies. The intent was to show that the diseased saw Neville as a threat, as though they were fighting the chance to be cured. But you’d never know that without knowing the film’s source material.

Will Smith is Dr. Robert Neville, one of the last survivors of a vaccine gone wrong. The vaccine was the responsible agent for turning the whole world into a zombie hell. Everyday of his lonely life, he searches for a cure with his only companion, a healthy German Shepherd, as he watches old recorded news clips from a time when television signals were being sent and the beginning of the outbreak was still news. Everyone else is dead, killed off by the zombie-making drug that was initially introduced as a radical way to cure cancer. It did more than cure cancer. It cured normalcy, and an astonishingly small one percent of one percent of the population survived by having immunity.

In a slow, semi-compelling fashion, Neville's isolated daily routine of research is shown. Bordering on boring, the story moves along until fate puts him in touch with another human being, an attractive (and equally immune) Anna (Alice Braga). It is then, after killing a few of these inexplicably superhuman zombies – and pissing off one very smart and extra strong zombie – that God comes into the picture. Yes, God!

95% of the world's population has been destroyed, decimated by an airborne virus to which only animals are immune, as Neville points out. But he is given hope and told to listen to his inner-voice because that voice is the voice of God! It's the typical Noah's ark scenario—the whole world is destroyed and only a select few will repopulate it. Such is the beneficence of the Almighty—religious people do believe crap like that. The great doctor finally finds the cure, but sacrifices himself to take out that badass zombie he pissed off earlier, thereby ensuring Anna’s way of escape. He is legend, don't you see?!

Lots of action and close calls don't make the movie any more appealing, and the special effects and these hyped-up zombies never quite seem or look believable. None of it stands out as far as apocalypse movies go. It's a copy of a copy of a zombie movie, and not a very good one.

(JH)

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Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith “Robert Neville,” Alice Braga “Anna,” Charlie Tahan “Ethan,” Salli Richardson-Whitfield “Zoe (as Salli Richardson)” Willow Smith “Marley,” Darrell Foster “Mike - Military Escort,” April Grace “TV Personality,” Dash Mihok “Alpha Male,” Joanna Numata “Alpha Female”
Genre: Thriller / Horror / Sci-fi / Drama

Changeling

Movie title: Changeling (2008)
Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, (Exec.) Geyer Kosinski, Robert Lorenz, (Exec.) Tim Moore, (Exec.) James Whitaker
Starring: Angelina Jolie “Christine Collins,” Jeffrey Donovan “J.J. Jones,” Gattlin Griffith “Walter Collins,” Michelle Martin “Sandy,” Jason Butler Harner “Gordon Northcott,” Michael Kelly “Detective Lester Ybarra,” Frank Wood “Ben Harris,” John Malkovich “Rev. Gustav Briegleb,” Colm Feore “Chief James E. Davis,” Devon Conti “Arthur Hutchins”
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Mystery
Summation: A mother's prayer for her kidnapped son to return home is answered, though it doesn't take long for her to suspect the boy who comes back is not hers.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Intense

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With both hands full of a big bucket of buttery popcorn and a large Dr. Pepper, I trucked into the theatre. The movie started just as I sat down. “Based on a true story,” the opening credits said. I had no doubt that the movie would be. What I had doubts about was whether or not the truth of the “true” story would get to the audience when going through the filter of artistic license during production. But as best as I am able to tell, the movie was spot-on.

The story, as portrayed on screen, was accurate and free from grievous exaggerations made in the name of entertainment. According to the film’s writer, J. Michael Straczynski, a former Los Angeles Times journalist, more than 90% of the dialogue in the movie was taken verbatim from the LA court transcripts, including the remark from Jeffrey Donovan (Captain Jones) to Angelina Jolie (Christine Collins), “Take the kid home on a trial basis.”

What a relief! It’s good to know that at least once in a while, the things we get emotional about on the silver screen are accurate and not pathos hooks thrown in simply to make a better story. With that concern put to rest, we move on to considering the development of the movie itself.

It starts off rather underwhelming. The acting is good, but it feels to be nothing more than a set-up for what is to come, and it is. On March 10, 1928, young Walter Collins goes missing. His mother goes to the police. Five months later, she is contacted by the police department and told that her boy has been found. Upon seeing him, she immediately realizes that the boy brought to her is not her son. Under virtual coercion, she takes him home for a time.

She tries to tell the police that they made a mistake, but she isn’t listened to. When she continues her pleading and begins to build a case against the LAPD and their refusal to admit a major mistake, she is committed to a psychiatric ward. But the ball set in motion by her before being committed puts some changes underway—changes that would shake the very foundation of the police force and the entire city.

The title “Changeling” sounds more like the title of a morose Sci-Fi cult classic where an alien morphs into different bodies to infiltrate human society, but in the context of the story of Christine and Walter Collins, it shouldn’t be too hard to see how the term “changeling” applies literally to one lost boy being essentially “swapped” by the authorities for another to suck up the wonderful wafers of public praise. But the story sounds almost too crazy to be real.

I mean, think about it. What kind of a stupid police force would insist that a boy is a mother’s son contrary to the protestations of the mother herself? It just doesn’t happen, one would think. It doesn’t, but it did. It was once the case that a woman opposing a man had little sway—much less so if that man happened to be a man of the law. It just wasn’t done. Women should be home making babies and churning the butter! We laugh about that notion now, but that was the way things were back then. Women were emotionally unstable, post-partum-depression-suffering, softcore nutcases who needed the guiding counsel of a good strong man. That was the way people thought.

The film’s portrayal of the 1920s and 30s is excellent. The scene where Jolie is being hosed down by the hospital staff in the mental ward shower wasn’t overdone. They did that back then. Everything, from the shine on the automobile bumpers to the signs, instruments, and clocks on the walls seemed authentic. What was less than authentic was the one-dimensional nature of the characters.

All the characters lacked depth. Captain J.J. Jones and his superiors are portrayed as the devil’s pets. They show no interest in anything other than upholding the reputation of the police force and don’t for a moment seem to care about justice. Things aren’t that simple. There are many sides to an individual, including corrupt individuals. Corruption isn’t born out of inexplicable pride or an unexplained lust for power, but from a combination of factors—factors that do not negate fundamentally “good” men doing bad things.

John Malkovich (Minister Gustav Briegleb) is a man of God and a herald’s voice against police corruption, but we don’t get to see so much as a glimpse of any other side of him. The psych ward doctor, Denis O’Hare (Dr. Jonathan Steele) is an obviously corrupt man who is completely owned by the police and a man who is not above physically striking his patients. What caused the doctor to tread this far off the professional course is not known, but his character seemed like yet another device to portray those blackened, evil souls in the law enforcement community.

Mrs. Collins herself, brilliantly played by Jolie, shows us nothing of who she was before or after the kidnapping of her son. Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Northcott), the boy-murdering “Chicken Coop Killer,” as he came to be known, was off the map. The character wasn’t poorly played, but why he did what he did was never made clear. He didn’t seem mentally ill or evil, more confused than anything else. But serial killers aren’t usually confused. They are methodical and feverishly driven to do what they do, and yet the Northcott we saw wasn’t. All the characters were shallow, as though they were intended only to fill their respective roles and nothing more.

Towards the end, the movie drags past what could have been a succinct stopping-point and into unneeded scenes, scenes intended to serve as tearjerkers that quite simply run too long. Courtroom battles, the carrying out of a judicial action, workplace affairs, and matters regarding other missing children prolong a very belabored ending.

Watching Changeling will make you angry and frustrated as a psychologically brutalized Collins tirelessly seeks to be heard, often to no avail. It’s a sad and moving story with plenty of intense moments that will bring out in viewers feelings of sadness, as well as rage. This is not Eastwood’s best film by any means, but overall, it’s a fairly good movie and certainly a story that no one should forget.

(JH)

30 days of Night

Movie title: 30 Days of Night (2007)
Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Director: David Slade
Producers: Ted Adams, (Exec.) Joseph Drake, (Exec.) Aubrey Henderson, (Exec.) Nathan Kahane, Sam Raimi, (Exec.) Mike Richardson, Chloe Smith
Starring: Josh Hartnett “Sheriff Eben Oleson,” Melissa George “Stella Oleson,” Danny Huston “Marlow,” Ben Foster “The Stranger,” Mark Boone Junior “Beau Brower,” Mark Rendall “Jake Oleson,” Amber Sainsbury “Denise,” Manu Bennett “Deputy Billy Kitka”
Genre: Horror
Summation: Vampires migrate to northern Alaska to feast on humans during the dark winter months.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Gory

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All may seem well in the icebox of America’s northernmost city (Barrow, Alaska), but this winter is not going to be like any other. Once the annual thirty days of polar darkness sets in, vampires take the opportunity to feast on trapped and helpless inhabitants. That’s the running theme in this Halloween horror 30 Days of Night directed by David Slade.

If you want horror, you’ve got it! Faces are slashed open with powerful claws, sending blood and screams of horror into the air. The level of realism is most unsettling as heads are graphically chopped off with multiple, laborious swings from an ax. Horrified men, women, and children are ripped from their quaint houses and wrestled to a snowy ground as their throats are bitten open with serrated teeth, leaving a red slush underneath the victims. In this film, gore-hounds will not be disappointed.

As for originality, the movie doesn’t have much, but it has a little. Facial features that are very pronounced, almost catlike in form, augment the typical European charm and look seen in most vampires. There’s no turning into bats and flying away here! These evil Hell-beasts are hungry, and they have thirty days of crippling darkness to chow down on the human population without consequence.

Hurting the credibility of the film, there were few if any Inuit people visible in a town of only five thousand where there should have been plenty. Instead, we have handsome and attractive Caucasian men and women. This was because the film wasn’t really filmed in Alaska, but New Zealand. I guess the director felt it was too hard to fly over and film the town with native Alaskan stand-ins, which (as stated) hurt the credibility of the film.

The credibility of the film suffered in two other serious regards, one being that Alaska is not dark for 30 days, but for 62. But even then, when it’s dark, it isn’t pitch black except for most of the day. An afternoon sun can be seen for several hours that looks like a late summer evening's brightness. Some better research on Alaska should have been done before filming began.

The humans are physically no match for the vampires, making it almost impossible to resist them. The plot is original, as are the vampires, with their oh-so-wicked tendency to take women and children and force them to march down the cold city streets and call out for help to draw out hiding humans. Beyond these things, however, nothing stands out as truly gripping.

While the plot was good, the quality of acting was fair at best. Character development was completely average, and the film doesn’t really make you feel for someone when they get killed. The screams are mostly realistic, but definitely overdone at times, as is the intensely savage behavior of the vampires, which could have been hemmed in a bit.

The dialogue was flat and largely uninteresting; “What do they want?” “I don’t know.” “How are we going to stop them?” “I don’t know.” Although very apparent at times, these quirks are not unlivable. One thing I found particularly interesting was how wasteful these hungry vampires were to leave thick trails of precious, tasty blood in the snow to go to waste. One would think that intelligent, humanoid predators would be more conservative with their food supply (even lions are careful to lick up all the blood from their kill).

In the final analysis, the movie is definitely worth seeing if you love intensely gory horror or vampire flicks, or if you are just looking for a good scary film. For the rest of us, well, seeing it still might not be a waste of time.

(JH)

Superbad is Supergood!

Movie title: Superbad (2007)
Grade: A- (4 stars)
Rated: R
Director: Greg Mattola
Producers: Judd Apatow, (Exec.) Evan Goldberg, Shauna Robertson, (Exec.) Seth Rogen, Dara Weintraub
Starring: Jonah Hill “Seth,” Michael Cera “Evan,” Christopher Mintz-Plasse “Fogell,” Bill Hader “Officer Slater,” Seth Rogen “Officer Michaels,” Martha MacIsaac “Becca,” Emma Stone “Jules,” Aviva “Nicola”
Genre: Comedy
Summation: Two co-dependent high school seniors (Hill and Cera) are forced to deal with separation anxiety after their plan to stage a booze-soaked party goes awry.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Crass

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I don’t know why, but so many movies really blow it when it comes to exchanges between young people. I don’t know what it is with Hollywood directors. It may not be solely their faults though. Perhaps it’s the fault of all adults in that as we get older, we loose the ability to get in touch with and relate to kids like we once were. This shortcoming always shows through in the dialogue of a film where kids are portrayed to say things they normally wouldn’t.

Superbad is a breath of fresh air in a bottomless sea of stunted movies where kids say and do the most unrealistic things. Superbad gets it right. This is how most kids talk and these are the things they talk about—scoring booz and bagging babes while struggling within themselves to find their way. This is life for the average high schooler, and that is the plot in Superbad.

But mind you, Superbad is a quality movie because of the human dynamics that are dealt with instead of the usual death sentences to teen-centered movies, where dopey, brainless pot-smoking, and mindless party-going is all there is. Superbad doesn’t go that route. It gets deep into friendships, social acceptance, peer pressure, the pursuit of romance, and even disappointing college arrangements.

The story begins with two friends who have their eyes on some girls, and lo and behold, the opportunity to hook up with them comes along in the form of the opportunity to get alcohol for a party. They take it, but getting the alcohol requires a fake ID. With the commencement of the journey to acquire one and the pitfalls of some major inconveniences – like kooky cops, car troubles, a car wreck, and encounters with irate partying drunks – it’ll turn out to be a night they won’t soon forget.

Superbad is dirty and profanely realistic, but unlike so many barely smile-worthy movies in its genre, it’s actually funny—yes, funny with the kind of detail-oriented humor that surfaces in real life predicaments. The storyline is rich and always crassly entertaining.

Superbad has other story elements as well, including a frayed friendship dynamic between Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), the two best friends and leading roles in the film. There are the self-esteem issues of Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), as well as the development of romances for Seth and Evan.

Add to that, the film flows and keeps flowing with a consistent introduction, body, and conclusion. It’s quite tidy. When you’re done watching, you feel like two of your own best friends made up and buried the hatchet on some old issues. Meanwhile, their tag-along friend had the confidence-building night of his life. That’s what is so warm about the movie.

But the thing I liked best about it was the fittingness of the characters. You look at the actors selected to play these parts and you say to yourself, “Those could have been my buddies growing up.” These kids aren’t cupie-doll jocks or prepped-out 90210 pretty boys. These are average kids and they look and act the part. They’re believable and they’re funny.

If, like me, you have a special loathing in your heart for the brain-dead bundles of butt-hash that make kid-oriented movies as senseless as they are, cut the cynicism just once for Superbad. Odds are, you’ll be shocked at the difference and probably enthralled at what it has to offer.

(JH)

Burn After Reading

Movie title: Burn After Reading (2008)
Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producers: Tim Bevan, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, David Diliberto, Eric Fellner, (Exec.) Robert Graf
Starring: George Clooney “Harry Pfarrer,” Frances McDormand “Linda Litzke,” John Malkovich “Osbourne Cox,” Tilda Swinton “Katie Cox,” Brad Pitt “Chad Feldheimer,” Richard Jenkins “Ted Treffon,” Elizabeth Marvel “Sandy Pfarrer,” David Rasche “CIA Officer,” J.K. Simmons “CIA Superior.”
Genre: Comedy/Romance/Action/Thriller
Summation: A disk containing the memoirs of a CIA agent ends up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees who attempt to sell it for profit.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Disjointed

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In high school, I had a 94 average in biology class. I was a GT student in English. But in most subjects, I never tried, and if I did, I tried for a while and did well, but soon gave up. Since that time, I’ve come across students who were amazingly smart and academically inclined, but who, like me, never finished the job or maximized their potential. Getting around to doing a task is a problem for some, but often, getting around to finishing the task is an even bigger one. It’s one thing to start out strong and another thing to finish strong.

Well, a strong finish is what Burn After Reading doesn’t offer. It starts out strong and gets funnier and funnier, right up until the last thirty minutes of the film, at which time, it proverbially tips the king over as in a forfeited game of Chess and gives up. It just gives up, quits, ending on a totally unaccomplished note. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it on the big screen.

There is a certain frustration that comes in assuming a movie will go somewhere and accomplish something, only to find that it doesn’t. Here’s a heads up: the ending of Burn After Reading is weird, disjointed, and it goes nowhere, so don’t expect it to. A resolution to a movie and a plot with such kicking characters was more than called for.

The hilarity really begins shortly after the characters are introduced. From the start, they are unique and likable and well defined. For certain, this is one of the funnier movies I have seen. The only thing that puts a damper on it is the hilarity-one-moment-suspense-the-next style of filming.

The best acting came (expectedly) in the forms of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), but the on-edge and neurotic performance of Malkovich as Osbourne Cox is one-of-a-kind, making the movie rip-roaringly funny. The script could have done nothing without him, nor without Frances McDormand as the confidence-lacking, middle-aged, horny, self-esteem case with an attitude, Linda Litzke. There was some brilliant writing here, the kind that involved multifaceted human emotions.

Everyone in Burn After Reading is in a different place in life and they face different decisions. Adultery, divorce, self-image issues and plastic surgery considerations, paranoia, and even cyber-trolling play their parts in the plot that makes this movie so sharp. The deep-seated message of the movie gives it an even greater appeal when it addresses the two-faced nature of the human animal and our propensity to take sides to get what we want.

Much like the movie 300, which could have done far better had it remained true-to-life instead of getting into D&D-level fantasy, this one loses its way by stepping out of the bounds of comedy and into the action and thriller categories. You just don’t try to make someone getting graphically shot in the head funny, nor should having such a scene be expected to do anything but subtract from the plot. The same goes for having a gym manager get axed to death.

Too bad the abrupt and broken ending did things in. Going the happier route of bringing things to a nifty resolution could have pulled the movie over into being “A” material, but the direction the film takes doesn’t allow it to unleash all of its potential comedic genius. And that is a shame. My eyes widen when I wonder how successful this movie would have been had it remained true to the comedy genre.

(JH)

Blindness

Movie title: Blindness (2008)
Grade: B- (3 stars)
Rated: R
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Producers: Niv Fichman, Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Sonoko Sakai, Bel Berlinck, Sari Friedland, (Exec.) Gail Egan, (Exec.) Simon Channing Williams
Starring: Julianne Moore “The Doctor’s Wife,” Mark Ruffalo “The Doctor,” Alice Braga “The Woman with Dark Glasses,” Danny Glover “The Man with the Black Eye Patch,” Gael Garcia Bernal “Bartender/King of Ward Three”
Genre: Horror/Thriller/Drama
Summation: A mysterious illness robs the world of sight leaving humankind struggling to survive.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Disturbing

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The idea of suddenly going blind has always been horrifying to me. To live in a world without sight would be debilitating. For those of us who can see, suddenly not having sight would change the world in a most disastrous way. Just to think about suddenly going blind is scary, scarier than any monster movie I’ve ever seen. The reason being, blindness is a real thing and it could conceivably happen. Not since 28 Days Later have I been so creeped out!

Be ready to feel shocked and disturbed because in Blindness, a mysterious onslaught of sightlessness attacks the world. As an uncontrollable epidemic, it quickly spreads and wreaks havoc. When mass panic and chaos lays waste to law and order, it’s up to the nobler to rise above it. It is in these times that the term “family” has a far more extended and cherished meaning. The values we hold on to have the most meaning to us in times of catastrophe and confusion.

The film exhibits marvelous attention to detail in nearly every regard, but as a result of this, it is somewhat graphic with nudity, bodily fluids, bloodshed, and visually acute conditions of squalor always on display. The visuals and cinematography bring to your view a full and mostly accurate representation of the world we’ve come to know and love without that precious sense known as sight.

A number of scenes are skittish and miss the targeted emotion sought after, but what is not missed is the escalating chilling feel. Things go from ordinary to odd to disturbing to scary, and then to dire in a steady climb. Before you know it, the situation has become more serious than you realize. The mood at first seems to almost be that of a romantic comedy. Then trouble strikes and worsens, much like the mood-ruining surprises that thwart a good day.

Believability is sometimes missing. In the beginning, when the quarantine phases begin, we get to know a parentless young child being quarantined with a mob of frustrated, confused adults in facilities that resemble internment camps without any type of monitoring or government except from outside behind guarded walls. In a state of crisis, things can be rather poorly managed, but not this poorly managed. No kid would be left in such circumstances for sure. And the poor kid would have been balling his eyes out, as would the cots-full of women (some of them incarcerated completely naked) lying dirty and confused. What should have been better played up was the emotional trauma and mental breakdowns that would be experienced were this to really happen. It is on this note that the movie begins a moralizing that can be irksome.

The film’s portrayal of the government as mindlessly unorganized and cruel is too much. Every effort is made to portray the military as reckless glory-boys who incompetently take power redneck-style in the futile effort to safeguard us. It’s a big political statement about medical care and less government for sure, but it goes way too far and doesn’t seem real. If you doubt this, just ask yourself why the film includes concerned people begging two hasmat-suited soldiers for medical aid to help an injured man, only to be coldly turned away under threat of gunfire. Everything in movies means something—trust me!

Yeah, we know; the government is oppressive and incompetent and has an imperfect medical coverage system. Bureaucracy and red tape does get in the way and ends up hurting the ailing common man. But what’s new? If you happen to take pride in the U.S. of A. being a wonderfully apt and charitable choice among so many (and always less beneficent) governments on this planet, then some of these undertones might tic you off. The struggle to survive does come out on top, however. And the movie does draw more attention to the human interaction as opposed to the nature of the mysterious blinding affliction, but it keeps a high level of curiosity about everything right through to the end.

Agree or disagree with the subtle undertones, the message of the movie is basically right and valid—the human drives for love and family never shine so brightly as when we must find the need for them in and of ourselves. And who is our family? Not those fortunate enough to be born from our bloodline, but the whole human race, consisting of the distant cousins (strangers) who labor alongside us to survive.

Blindness is a remarkably bleak and yet provocatively bright film with an eye-opening, unexpected, and powerful ending that you shouldn’t miss. Apocalyptic and dark doesn’t have to be your thing to appreciate this, though I should say, it will help if it is!

(JH)

Lakeview Terrace

Movie title: Lakeview Terrace (2008)
Grade: D- (1 star)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Neil LaBute
Producers: James Lassiter, Will Smith, Orin Woinsky, (Exec.) John Cameron, (Exec.) Jeffrey Graup, (Exec.) David Loughery, (Exec.) Joe Pichirallo
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson “Able Turner,” Patrick Wilson “Chris Mattson,” Kerry Washington “Lisa Mattson,” Ron Glass “Harold Perreau,” Justin Chambers “Donnie Eaton,” Jay Hernandez “Javier Villareal,” Regine Nehy “Celia Turner,” Jaishon Fisher “Marcus Turner”
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Summation: An LAPD officer will stop at nothing to force out an interracial couple who moved in next door.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Overdone

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Seeing the previews for this one had me hooked. The plot was so enticing. I mean, who can’t relate to a movie about corrupt law enforcement? The corruption and downfall of those in power is a favorite theme for sure, and the idea behind the story is just awesome. It had all the ingredients to be a good movie. And the intriguing thought is: Isn’t living next door to a cop the safest thing? Not in this case! As cool as it sounds, however, Lakeview Terrace bites the bullet from bad writing. It wasn’t long into the film until I was compelled to adopt the conviction that the previews were actually way better than the movie itself.

The messages of the film are so very simple, and that ends up being a problem if you like deep, thought-provoking entertainment. But on the other hand, if you want a simple movie, a movie where everything is right on the surface, then you’ll probably like it. There are no subtle messages, no clever under-themes or clues, no plot-twists, nothing but a bare bones presentation of an interracial couple living next door to a bad cop who hates them. The message is that corruption can come in any form and from anyone. Okay, we get it! It’s as obvious as a billboard!

The film capitalizes on the angering theme of racism, but like everything else in the film, even the racism element is overplayed. Think about it; what do racist neighbors do? Even the outspoken ones are usually introverted racists and are so known by letting little things slip over time. They give you bad looks when they see you out in the yard, they don’t invite you over for a cocktail party when they invite most of the other neighbors on the block, they are rude and un-talkative, they make references to “your kind” and forbid their kids from having contact with you, but they seldom go as far as Samuel L. Jackson’s character (Abel Turner) does here. Suffice it to say, the things that happen (though certainly possible and not unheard of) are unlikely to go this far. But the racism in this film is so sprawled out and in-your-face that it becomes a somewhat hard sell. Lakeview Terrace is actually the place where Rodney King was beaten in 1993 and he is referenced in the film.

Mellow-dramatic is this movie – and overdone – making what could have been a wonderfully unique and suspenseful thriller into a half-baked cinematic flop without genuine suspense—I thought the mock news stories of the California wildfires were more interesting that much of the main course of the film. Throughout, you’ll find flat exchanges, like “we knew this would be hard,” and frustrating conversations where one spouse doubts the other one, but is never told the full details of a confrontation. While not bad, the dialogue is never spectacular. And nevermind the strained plot logistic of how an LA cop manages to afford the gorgeous California home that he and his kids live in!

Another question that comes to mind is why the couple didn’t simply go to the internal affairs bureau when harassed. In a day when the public servant aspect of police work is emphasized and police officers are being held to a much higher standard, Abel would have been called to answer for such behavior or at least investigated. To the film’s credit, it does portray Abel as being on the out-and-out with the force because of brutality allegations, which was fair and arguably in character. But the incident that sparked his being called into question was an overdone scene where Abel takes down a hostage-taking deadbeat dad. The directors just couldn’t resist the urge to have him beat the guy and then lecture him on being a good father. Ok, we get it! He’s an idealistic bigot too and it spills over into his work! Ok already!

The confessed reason for Abel’s hatred of his neighbors is way too much and rather ridiculous. Like the deadbeat dad element, Lakeview Terrace is full of contrived scenes, such as where Abel’s daughter comes over and dances to some hip-hop with Kerry Washington’s character (Lisa Mattson), but it isn’t hard to see that kids don’t act that way. The whole scene wreaks of being pulled together just to spark another incident with A-hole Abel. The latter half of the movie begins to heat up with the chain of events that leads to Abel’s undoing, but the ending of the movie is completely absurd. You’ll be saying, “No way he could be that dumb!”

The anger the film generates does give it some level of suspense, which keeps the viewer watching to see a resolution of the matter. Racism is the theme, and so if you’re not distracted by the overall deficiencies of the flick, you might get mad watching it. Personally, I was more annoyed with the failure of it, which is a shame because this could have been a great movie with the right directing. But as it is done, it leaves much to be desired.

(JH)

The Strangers

Movie title: The Strangers (2008)
Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: R
Director: Bryan Bertino
Producers: Thomas J. Busch, Doug Davison, (Exec.) Joseph Drake, (Exec.) Marc D. Evans, Nathan Kahane, (Exec.) Kelli Konop, Roy Lee, (Exec.) Trevor Macy, (Exec.) Sonny Mallhi
Starring: Scott Speedman “James Hoyt,” Liv Tyler “Kristen McKay,” Gemma Ward “Dollface,” Kip Weeks “Man in the Mask,” Laura Margolis “Pin-Up Girl,” Glenn Howerton “Mike”
Genre: Thriller/Horror/Mystery
Summation: A couple is attacked by mysterious assailants in their family’s summer home.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Desperate

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I have a friend who goes into hysterics when, at the right moment, I repeat a certain phrase from her favorite television show The Chappelle’s Show. But every time I try to make her laugh by deliberately repeating it, she tells me that it doesn’t come out right. I can’t do it on command, she says. It has to be spontaneous and natural-sounding when said in the right moment or it loses its affect.

Speaking of losing affects, The Strangers does just that after beginning with a powerful and promising start.

I’ll admit, the film had a genuinely scary aura to it. The settings and lighting were just right. I liked the characters and the acting, for what it was worth. And to its credit, it didn’t go the way of so many lame horror flicks by throwing in a sex scene-turned-death scene.

The cryptic elements pop out almost immediately when a lost, helpless-looking girl comes to the door repeatedly, even after being turned away. One gets the impression that a wayward soul still seeking her consort is afloat. Not long afterwards, however, it loses steam.

A certain frustration develops from the film’s becoming inconsistent on the implied supernatural elemental plot-points. A girl appearing in the distance and then vanishing at a mere glance away, a hand on the back of a man’s neck in his car, the miscreants getting inside the house and moving around cell phones for some eerie suspense, it’s all fine and good. But then it heads in the other direction.

These “ghosts,” strangely enough, are unable to find people without conventionally searching for them, and if they find the humans, they must use man-made weapons to kill them. They carry these weapons around with them all throughout the film. These “ghosts” drive trucks and even take religious literature from two Mormons. They also wear masks and appear downright sensitive about showing their faces, making them the strangest darn ghosts I’ve ever heard of!

In these things, the film tries too hard to stay mystically scary. And “gag me with a spoon” is my description for the mellow-dramatic tendency to have sudden screams come from bodies that appear to be dead. Such lack of creativity unmistakably detracts from the quality of the movie. And every keen movie enthusiast should know that when a movie resorts to surprise scream scares, it's because the director is desperate to leave an impression with the audience and isn't confident in the movie's ability to be scary for the raw content of the film. Not a good sign!

The Strangers is based off an allegedly obscure 911 call made on February 11, 2005, but is also based on an experience from the childhood of director Bryan Bertino. Bertino’s admitted fascination with the Manson murders factored into the development of the film as well.

The annoying, burning questions that are left behind are not the stuff that makes for expected ruminations to come from having watched a breathtaking horror movie. No, they’re just pointless and unsatisfying.

Having watched it, I don’t feel that much has been accomplished. I don’t regret seeing the movie, but I don’t feel like the movie left me with anything remarkable. My mind wasted no time filing it away in that “Oh yeah, I did see that a long time ago” category.

It was scary and chilling in the initial phases, but soon became enveloped in confusion as it tried too hard to be a shocker. That is a shame since a lot in the film was done right. This could have been a phenomenal accomplishment with the right directing.

As it is, it might win a few fans and possibly even become a cult classic, but it’s not going to have too many people buzzing about it.

(JH)

On Health-nuts…

There are many types of nutcases in the world. There are religious nuts. As you probably know, they make up a huge percentage of the world’s population. Then there are conspiracy theorist nuts, both on the left and on the right side of the political isle. Nuts on the far left say that George Bush and the government were behind the attacks on 9-11, while nuts on the far right say that Lyndon Johnson played a key role in the assassination of JFK. They’re all fucking nuts, I say!

But there is another kind of nut, a class of nut that can sometimes be more disturbing than sitting around the couch after Thanksgiving dinner with Uncle Ed and hearing him wonder aloud whether or not the smoke of 9-11 came from secretly placed fires set in dumpsters, or whether or not Lee Harvey worked alone. The type of nut I am talking about is the health-nut. The vocal health-nut is very much like a fundamentalist religionist, who honestly thinks he can alter his destiny and the destinies of others significantly by simple diet alterations.

The religionist thinks he can alter his fate and the fates of others by babbling at the sky, by making intercession to heaven. Perhaps a tragedy can be prevented, perhaps a soul saved by calling out, by begging the almighty to change his gloriously laid-down plans to grant their selfishly lame, titty-baby petitions. Such thinking is…well…just dumb!

But the health-nut is every bit as dumb. They go through life thinking that eating that extra bowl of Honey Wheat Cheerios or Wheaties with some wheat germ poured on it that tastes like ass, or sucking down those disgusting-as-hell rice patties with apple butter spread on them will actually lengthen their pathetic, puny lives. They scan the shelves at the grocery store for greens and anything that says “heart healthy.” They fall down and worship at the altar of “getting plenty of greens.” Fuck them, I say!

It’s bullshit. Eating right might (just might!) keep away the common cold. That is all. Eating healthy will not lengthen your life. Your lifespan is almost exclusively determined by your genetics, which means short of taking in poison or working in smog for 30 years at some run-down, sweat-shop-like factory in Michigan or Houston, there’s really no way to shorten your life. Yes, you’re gonna die when you’re gonna die, mothafucka! Not a damn thing you can do about it. But count on that indomitable part of man to take charge and insist that he can master his destiny, that he can take control of his fate. This never-dying tendency of man so sickens me that words scarcely describe it.

But what really makes health-nuts nuttier than them all is their Nazi-like insistence that everyone else live the same lifestyle that they have chosen for themselves. Like I need to live on fucking grapenuts! Screw that! And oatmeal? Oatmeal blows! I get my fiber from beans—in breakfast tacos and delicious Mexican food, and that has got to be enough. If it isn’t, fuck it!

And I don’t need 8 glasses of water a day. I drink when I’m thirsty, thank you very much. And the idea that 8 glasses of water – for all people of all sizes in all conditions – is wrong and totally stupid anyway. I get my greens through beef and broccoli stir-fry and from freshly made salsa with cilantro. So forgive me for bowing out of your bottled water-toting idiocy, health-nut!

And listening to a health-nut is as bad as it gets! Fucking EVERYTHING is bad for you to a health-nut—even water, because it has minerals, and minerals can give you kidney stones! Lettuce gives you kidney stones, as do sodas and coffee. Aspartame is bad for you too, even though you ingest it because you gave up sugar, which made you fat and unhealthy in the first place. Red meat is bad for you, but fish is bad too because it contains mercury, and poultry products contain salmonella, which is basically death on a plate. Rice has niacin and riboflavin, both needed nutrients, but rice is a starch, and starches too are bad for you because they turn to sugar! Corn has Vitamin A, but guess what? It also turns to sugar! So I guess everything that casts a shadow is bad for you, right, you fucking health-nut?!

Nothing’s ever good enough for a health-nut…except their own little anal ways of doing things, which parallels the drivel we hear from the religious fundamentalists, from the Jerry Fallwells and Dr. D. James Kennedys and other oppressive, fascist, toad-like creatures, who insist that they’ve got all the right answers. Follow them=good! Don’t follow them=bad! Support them financially=great! Don’t support them financially=oh my god, that’s awful!!!!!!!!!!

But the saddest part of it all is, the health-nut is probably going to die before my out-of-shape ass will! I’ve seen the healthiest get Type 1 diabetes, get cancer, suffer kidney failure, suffer from blood and chemical disorders of different kinds, and die of a sudden heart attack. I’ve seen men run 5 miles a day and bench 350 pounds and then have to undergo debilitating chemotherapy. I’ve seen a mailman who walked everyday of his life who ate a perfectly balanced diet lose both legs to diabetes before 60. He was a thin man too.

It all comes out in the wash, and when it does, no one’s got the goods on anyone else. Your body quits when your body quits. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. And that’s why 90-year-old Ima May Jenkins who lives down the street from your mom and has smoked since age 9 is still kicking while you’ve been fighting off bad allergies non-stop since nursery school.

They tell you that you get diabetes from eating poorly and being overweight. That’s bullshit. There have been too many exceptions to the rule for this to be true. Maybe that’s anecdotal evidence, but so fucking what? I’m comfortable with the conviction. So take your goddamn wheatgrass and jump off a grassy cliff, health-nut!

(JH)

Babylon A.D.

Movie title: Babylon A.D. (2008)
Grade: F (0 stars) Worst of 2008!
Rated: PG-13
Directors: Mathieu Kassovitz
Producers: Mathieu Kassovitz, Alain Goldman, Benoît Jaubert (Exec.), Selwyn Roberts
Starring: Vin Diesel “Toorop,” Michelle Yeoh “Sister Rebeka,” Mélanie Thierry “Aurora,” Gérard Depardieu “Gorsky,” Charlotte Rampling “High Priestess,” Mark Strong “Finn,” Lambert Wilson “Dr. Darquandier”
Genre: Scifi/Action
Summation: A mercenary is assigned to deliver a woman to America who is being sought by a powerful and corrupt religious cult.
Spoilers ahead: Yes
In a word: Wanting

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What does the title “Babylon A.D.” make you think about? Nebuchadnasser? Bible times? How about a rebirthing of a society in great corruption and decadence? Maybe wonders of the ancient world in modern post-apocalyptic times, perhaps? Well, whatever it reminds you of, your mental conception is likely too lofty for the likes of this failure of a film. But like great Babylon of old, this film is truly dead!

I’m not trying to be mean—oh no! I actually felt sorry for the cast in this film because the director seems to have had no idea of what it means to make a movie with a functional storyline, even though Kassovitz has claimed that the producers ruined his movie after he was done with it. The movie was based on a novel by Maurice G. Dantec called Babylon Babies. Maybe the novel was actually good, but no go for the movie. The fractured writing is, of course, what did it in. Watching it made me feel like a professor when a lazy-ass college freshman turns in a rough draft for an English essay final, but hasn’t a clue that it isn’t finished yet. This film was incomplete. I wanted to say, “Huh uh, go the fuck back and sit down and finish this!” But unlike grading a term paper, you can’t do that when grading films, so it gets an F.

In this movie, segmented ideas and concepts are thrown out and never explained. The movie ends and you’re going “what??????” The low budget feel could have been forgiven, as could the “tough guy” element that is heavily present in the film. But what could not be forgiven are the horrendous scifi gadgets that are among the worst I’ve ever seen on film. Can you imagine a director being so stupid as to show off technological advancement by having wires attached to a man OUTSIDE of the suit-coat he’s wearing?! I got a good laugh from that, believe me!

The movie wasn’t boring. The fight scenes were decent in a few places, aside from that all too common cinematic ailment known as Shakey Camera Syndrome. The choreography wasn’t bad. The special affects were okay. No B-movie would have been able to do this well, so the budget was there. The dialogue was good, and there was some character development and a touch of likableness to the three main characters, but that is all. Just when you want to appreciate it, the plot skips right off the map into a sci-fi psychosis that it never returns from. The story is nebulous, bringing up all sorts of questions.

Since the plot itself is confusing and very difficult to follow, I’ll summarize it. It’s about Toorop (Vin Diesel), a mercenary hired to deliver a package from Russia to New York City. But the package is no ordinary package, but a strange woman “Aurora” (Melanie Thierri) who has a secret and some unusual abilities, like the ability to know things she has never studied. The journey to America is difficult as Toorop faces some serious obstacles along the way, like flying machines that kill anything that moves—even the likes of polar bears! On a side note, you’d think that since polar bears are an endangered species, and this is the future where other animals, like tigers, are stated in the film to have already gone extinct, that they’d want to preserve them. But you thought wrong!

Toorop finally gets there with Aurora and her nun sister, Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh) who was in a convent with her in Russia to avoid those sent by Aurora’s evil mother to take her. Why did they want to take her? Because her father, believed to be dead, engineered her at birth to have psychic-like great intelligence and to be able (it is implied) to produce two virgin-born children for the purpose of having absolute scientific proof for the world to see that the Neolite religion is the one true religion.

Against the grain of his character, Toorop makes the choice not to hand over the package, but decides to deliver the two women from the corrupt religion. Rebeka is killed in the process, as is Toorop temporarily, but he is resurrected and delivered by Dr. Arthur Darquandier (Aurora’s father) using advanced medical devices. The doctor is fighting against his former wife and mother of Aurora and is himself shown to be alive only by technological advances. Toorop is then given a cybernetic hand due to damages sustained in death. Aurora had by then become inexplicably pregnant with two children of different races, although she remained a virgin. She dies giving birth to the twins and Toorop raises them as his own, and the movie ends.

I’m leaving out a lot of details, like Toorop accidentally walking into cage matches with growling, buffed-out fighters, scenes of post-apocalyptic disaster where train stations explode and submarines leave people to drown in icy waters, and mysterious encounters with corrupt religious gangsters who ride motorcycles and kill people, along with Russian mobsters who blow up convents. But I needn’t mention any of it. It’s all the sort of painful and unappealing drab you’d find in any B-movie with a deformed plot. The story is as hazy and as poorly constructed as the blurted-out pacifist sentiments of a cracked-out Woodstock hippie. It’s hard to follow, it’s indescribably weird and un-life-like, and it’s just…well…bad!

Had the director been able to tell a story that made a lick of sense, things would have been different. But as it stands, things just don’t jive! Among the many questions that linger are, where do these virgin born children really come from? Why are they of different races? Why did the corrupt Neolite religion need virgin-born children to vindicate their faith, and why do they show disgust at not having “evidence” for it? Since when do religious nutcases admit that they have no evidence for their claims and then seek to find it? Where’s the self-delusion? Most religious people pursue their beliefs out of passion, however misled. The rest are the devious minds with impure motives who seek to make a buck, but seldom are they conspirators like they are in this flick. Human nature is one of many things “off” in this film, but then again, everything else is off too. Babylon A.D. is definitely in the running for the worst movie of 2008.

(JH)

Quantum of Suckiness

Movie title: Quantum of Solace (2008)
Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13
Director: Marc Forster
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Starring: Daniel Craig “James Bond,” Olga Kurylenko “Camille,” Mathieu Amalric “Dominic Greene,” Judi French “M,” Jeffrey Wright “Felix Leiter,” Gemma Arterton “Agent Fields”
Genre: Action/Thriller
Summation: Bond pursues a mysterious organization of organized crime in South America.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Disappointing

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I’ve always thought Daniel Craig is a good Bond. In fact, he makes a great Bond, giving Sean Connery a run for his money on more than a few levels. Craig gives Bond an athletic and modern, even a realistically “pretty boy” adjustment for a new day and age. He’s refined, he’s classy, he’s sharp, he’s eloquent and resolute, just enough so to compete with (and in some ways beat) old Connery’s Bond legacy. He also happens to be close enough in appearance to a Chip n’ Dales dancer to take the shaken-not-stirred-preferring, finessing lady-charmer strutting into the 21st century with turning heads. Casino Royale finely demonstrated that. The same can’t be said for Quantum of Solace, the ineptly directed and dry sequel to Royale.

I’ve never been a hugely devoted Bond fan, but I’m enough of an admirer to know a good Bond movie when I see one. Big-time Bond enthusiasts will be sorely disappointed with this one, I’m afraid. And what is it that Bond fans want? They want a charming Bond, a Bond with wit and a passion for wining and dining his way into the sack with the choicest ladies. They want a confident Bond, a sure-minded man with a mission. In Quantum of Solace, Bond may have a mission, but he has little else. And it’s not the fault of Craig who played his part well. It’s the fault of the director for dropping the ball on this one.

None of the traits that make James Bond who he is are here. Where was the character development? I didn’t like anyone. I didn’t care about anyone. I wasn’t afraid of anybody, much less interested. The dialogue was flat and the personal exchanges of nearly everyone were lifeless. It saddens me to say that I was actually bored most of the time, a few intense and well-choreographed close-quarter fighting scenes notwithstanding.

From the beginning, I was reminded of the Bourne series with the initial rooftop chase, and this isn’t a surprise as Marc Forster, the same guy who directed the Bourne series, directs the film. But mind you, Jason Bourne was a different guy. He struggled with himself. Bond should be just the opposite, and yet the film portrays him in nearly the same light. In fact, you could make Quantum of Solace a Bourne series movie and it would have been a stout improvement. Bad call, Mr. Forster! Bad call! The Bourne series was more enjoyable than this for the simple reason that Bourne remained consistent in character throughout every movie, but Bond is not Bond here. He’s not the Hemingway Hero we know. He’s someone else. Everything just felt wrong.

And by “everything” I meant the stunts as well. They were a touch too unbelievable, with close-by falling panes of glass to liven up fight scenes, and boat jumps that somehow manage to make other boats catch on fire and explode! The near maternal relationship between Bond and M was the only real connection in the film to the Bond we knew, but whipping the butts of an elevator full of fellow agents was yet another stretch in a movie that was already pulled too thin.

I enjoyed this just a little more than I did W. Movie, but less than Beverly Hills Chihuahua. That should tell you something, my friends! The plot was hazy. It tried to be complex and appealing, but it didn’t generate much interest the way it was developed. Everything seemed to race towards the action sequences—most of which were well done, but some of which were too abrupt, poorly alternating between action and story sequences, and always woefully lacking in finesse.

Add to that, even the title makes no clear sense. Every Bond movie has had a provocative title that tied in with the story, but I’ve yet to find a way “Quantum of Solace” applied to the film. But if one exists, it’s up to the director to ably develop the theme and bring out such facts, which it didn’t. And the villain, Dominic Greene, was totally forgettable and not at all flushed out. We learn nothing about his past or what drives him. Amalric does exhibit the right menacing quality for the role, but we’re never given anything else about him. The viewer is not prompted to inquire about anyone because the character development is so rotten.

Royale was deep and moving, but this was neither. The ending of the film was less than satisfying, as was the nearly ridiculous fate of Greene. The only way to appreciate the resolution of the film is to remember that Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale. To get the most out of the movie, Royale might ought to be watched again to be ready for this one. But be ye warned! The movie is too petty and too mundane to transcend the clutches of a typical Bourne-level fighting movie, making Quantum of Solace a big disappointment.

(JH)

Andrew Schuth Fails

Movie title: Sea of Fear (2006)
Grade: F (0 stars) Worst of 2006!
Rated: PG-13
Summation: Trapped on a boat at sea, a group of divers become the target of a relentless serial killer.
Spoilers ahead: No

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Watching Sea of Fear was quite a memorable experience. I didn’t feel any fear, but I sure did drown in a sea of submerging boredom, bad acting, and the cruddiest choreography I’ve seen to date. Pardon me while I dig deep for the right words to describe just how much of a stinker this bumbling abomination was.

But Sea of Fear is a top contender—a top contender in my 25 all-time worst movie list. It was unequivocally the most horrible flick of 2006, and if that is not enough, it now has the added honor of being equaled in awfulness by only 24 other films in existence.

The story is about a group of teenagers who head out to sea for a diving project, but little do they know, a killer is on the boat with them. Trapped at sea, one by one they are picked off and killed. Sound like an interesting story? Well, it’s not. Where the lameness of a typically bad movie with rotten teen actors ends, Sea of Fear is just getting started.

The mechanics of the story seem like they would be compellingly scary. The thought of being trapped out at sea on a small boat with a murderer who covers his or her tracks well enough not to get caught sounds interesting. The problem is that director Andrew Schuth sucks and wouldn’t know how to make a movie to save his freaking life! To say that this was a poorly constructed film would be a compliment. This is often what you get when you have the same dude directing, producing, and writing!

Randomly throughout the film, the director repeatedly and unnecessarily cuts away from scenes of kids on the boat or at a party on the beach to pictures set to music of corals and fish swimming. Often times, needless cutaways bring the viewer right back to the exact same scene as before with no augmentation whatsoever. But ridiculously cut and spliced scenes are only one problem here.

Imagine ten minutes of the camera rolling where girls sit around on the ship’s deck and talk “girl talk” only hours after finding out that their friends are missing. And the funny thing is, even the girl talk sucks! The world’s preppiest manicure-loving rich girl wouldn’t talk this way. No one throughout the film talks normally, in fact. The assininity of the progression of the story will have you on the edge of your seat in total awe of how any writer could knowingly create a movie like this and not immediately flee to Zimbabwa afterwards. Don’t see this film! Your homemade camcorder movies of you making funny faces and being silly as a kid in the backyard are far better.

Many other jewels are found in Sea of Fear too, like a girl screaming and no sound coming out of her mouth, a kid hanging himself and obviously not being dead, a ship’s captain mysteriously tied up and gagged in a closet with no explanation, stupid grins and inane facial expressions, a small girl strangling a decent-sized guy with a life-preserver, and those long-running moments of dialogue where nothing (and I do mean nothing) makes any sense. Watching this film was a mentally torturous experience—no, I’m not kidding!

Redeeming qualities? There were none, none at all, unless you count some suspense generated from wondering just how atrocious the film is going to get before finally having the decency to end. The film’s finality was no better or believable than the rest of this time-wasting catastrophe. I am well aware of the fact that this review is going to prompt a few of you to watch the movie just for the laughs of seeing something awful, or else to see if what I had to say was accurate. To those brave souls, I offer these words of wisdom: You’ll never get those two hours of your life back! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

(JH)

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Director: Andrew Schuth
Starring: Edward Albert “Captain,” Katherine Bailess “Kate,” Kieren Hutchison “Tom,” Burgess Jenkins “Lance,” Adam Mayfield “Joel,” Christopher Showerman “Derek,” Caroline Walker “Ashley MacDougal”
Genre: Horror

Nights in Rodanthe

Movie title: Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
Grade: D- (1 star)
Rated: PG-13
Director: George C. Wolfe
Producers: Denise Di Novi, Doug Claybourne, Alison Greenspan, (Exec.) Dana Goldberg, (Exec.) Bruce Berman
Starring: Richard Gere “Dr. Paul Flanner,” Diane Lane “Adrienne,” Scott Glenn “Robert Torrelson,” Christopher Meloni “Jack,” Viola David “Jean,” James Franco "Mark Flanner")
Genre: Romance/Drama
Summation: A woman in a troubled marriage meets a man while looking after an Inn for a friend and a romance begins.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Sappy

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There are those times when a critic must actually hunt for positive things to say about the subject of a review. It happens more often than you might think. I honestly didn’t expect Nights in Rodanthe, starring Richard Gere (Paul) and Diane Lane (Adrienne), to fall into that category.

I’m sorry to have to report that there was but one scene in the whole substandard film with any heart-tugging feel at all. Oh, there are plenty (and long) shots of tears being shed, but next to no legitimate emotion generated. Everything is sappy and overdone from start to finish. The acting is grossly apparent each passing minute.

When the dialogue is good, you don’t feel anything. When it isn’t bad, you don’t feel anything. But when it is bad, it is bad because it seems canned. This makes it even more apparent to the viewer that what is being watched are mere acting jobs rather than the inward adoption of characters played. The timing is always off. No build-up, no effective emotional hooking. The mood is always wrong and it never manages to get right.

The plot is contrived. A doctor (Paul) is at odds with another doctor, his son (James Franco “Mark Flanner”). They’ve been growing apart. A woman dies on dad’s operating table, but the doctor is given an opportunity to make amends with the grieving husband of the woman who died who blames him for her death.

Doctors have people die on them all the time. I always thought that when that happens, you apologize, extend condolences, and move on. I wouldn't guess you make a trip of several hundred miles to talk to someone about it (even if they are threatening to sue you) and then get there and have little to say. And certainly, you don’t get broken up over what is not even “your” loss and start crying in the widower’s living room. But maybe that’s just me.

Meanwhile, a woman’s (Adrienne’s) cheating husband (Christopher Meloni “Jack Willis”) wants to come back home. Her kids want dad back too. But she doesn’t want him back. Then she meets good-looking and well-to-do Paul Flanner, and things heat up from there. So contrived…all of it.

The execution of the plot was bloated and tiring. Everything is stilted and you never grow attached to anyone. If you think I’m being too harsh, consider a scene where Adrienne gets off the phone with her estranged husband. She’s angry because he’s pushing to get back together and she’s not ready. So she hangs up the phone and puts on a record. Out of frustration, she “jams out,” nodding back and forth to the tune in a most cheesy way before beginning to toss expired can goods in the trash as a way to relieve stress. Paul joins in.

We know what the intent of the scene was. It’s supposed to make the viewer relate to being stressed out and needing to vent, but it doesn’t have that affect and it leaves the viewer with only the realization that no one would act that way. But worst of all was the clichéd and rather predictable ending. You’ll be saying “Puh-lease” before you know it.

Many other miss-the-boat scenes follow suit, like Adrienne breaking down and laughing at the sight of horses on a beach and prolonged camera honing in on a smiling and rejuvenated Adrienne. Even visible boxes of tissue aren’t left out of crying scenes. Hearing about it, you’d think it’s a “chick flick,” but even an emotionally unstable, post-menopausal, valium-addicted divorcee still might not get into it.

Other small-but-noticeable mistakes are to be found, some of them hard to ignore, like a major hurricane supposedly hitting the small island of Rodanthe, a “big” hurricane, no less. But it couldn’t have been too big because the house Paul and Adrienne then occupied was right on the beach and it was fine afterwards. By the next morning, the hurricane is gone and the sun is out and the ground outside amazingly dry! Paul’s car, left out in the storm, is spotless. No rain water residue, no dirt, no fallen branches on the hood…nothing! It looked like it had just been waxed!

This was a big step backwards for both Gere and Lane for sure. There is an uncomfortable fact that ought to be recalled from time to time by certain directors, and that is that having big-name actors does not necessarily guarantee a big-name movie. But this was director Wolfe’s first attempt at a movie. Maybe he’ll get it right on the next go-round.

I’m hoping the best-selling novel from whence this film comes (Nights in Rodanthe, by Timothy Sparks) was a good one because there’s really not much positive to say about this sappy bor of a movie. I thought the hurricane affects were good during the storm. The anticipation of a storm is always exciting to me, more exciting than the rest of the flick. Sorry, that’s the best thing I can say about it!

(JH)

Tropic Thunder

Movie title: Tropic Thunder (2008)
Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) (Recommended!)
Rated: R
Directors: Ben Stiller
Producers: (Exec.) Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, Eric McLeod, Matt Eppedio
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Sandusky, Justin Theroux, Nick Nolte, Brandon Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Bill Hader
Genre: Comedy
Summation: A group of actors are thrown by a production company into a simulated war zone for the purpose of bringing out in them genuine emotions, but things get crazy when the actors find themselves in a real war zone.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Ingenious

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The desire for good comedy is like sexual fetishes—everyone has their own kind of thing that lights their fires! But give it enough time and ruts form when certain groups of people get used to certain kinds of comedy and are not open to accepting anything new when it comes along. Getting viewers out of these ruts is sometimes hard to do, and it takes a breakthrough, something clever and ingeniously funny to do it. Tropic Thunder might just be one such movie. “Clever” and “ingenious” are only two words that describe it!

It’s not traditional comedy and it’s not for everyone. Viewers who can’t roll with crass, new age antics, handicapped jokes, and some “dirty” references and language won’t appreciate it. But for those who can appreciate it, it’ll be a belly-laugh-inducer for sure.

The story is, above all else, original. The heat gets turned up when a group of talented-but-out-of-steam actors anger a powerful production company by not getting into the parts they are assigned to play. Calling for drastic measures, it is decided that these actors get a taste of reality and be dropped off into a simulated combat zone (unbeknownst to the actors) where hidden cameras would be placed to record their every (real) expression of terror and passion. But things go awry when the cast becomes the target of actual enemy combatants who seek to kill them. That’s what Tropic Thunder is about, and I’m not kidding when I say that it’s a riot of a movie!

With some truly outrageous and bizarre “laugh out loud” funny moments, Tropic Thunder is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in recent memory. One of the more unique things about it is that it’s the kind of film that’s even funnier the second time around, making it worth owning. The dialogue was what really made this movie fly. You’ve never heard so many cuss words strung together in a creatively funny way to evoke sporadically gut-giggling laughter as you have here.

The acting was untouchable. Tom Cruise as “Les Grossman” was unforgettable, the brightest shining star on the set by a long shot (though the makeup job done to make him a bald man was bad). Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Kirk Lazarus, “Osiris,” was superb, as was Jack Black as the drug-addicted felonious farting funny man Jack Portnoy, “Fats.”

With the exception of a few awkwardly unfunny interludes littered throughout the film (and there are some), the comedy was there and always lively delivered. Particularly towards the middle of the movie, a few scenes seem like they will never move along, but the movie ends up passing by quickly. When things get off the road to funny (and they do at times), they manage to get back on the road quickly enough.

The real ingenuity behind the writing of the script is seen in that you can’t imagine that anyone would sit down and map out a screenplay of this sort. It required some true comic genius in the form of (uh…drugs maybe?) to put something like this together. But I digress. It was just mesmerizing to see Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman) hunkered down under a self-made hut, watching the original Star Trek episode “Arena,” and then jumping out and killing his favorite animal, a panda. May not be conventionally funny, but even when the script isn’t generating laughs, it’s intriguing and manages to keep the viewer’s attention in a lightly amusing way. No one can criticize Tropic Thunder for not being original, even if the humor isn’t exactly their thing!

A few scenes run too long and lose their momentum, but that and occasional corniness isn’t too bad, thanks to the overall excellent craft of the movie. No feelings that a certain scene needed to be re-shot went through my mind.

Some public outrage was expressed at Tropic Thunder’s prolonged running retard gags. But love it or hate it, it’s damn funny! Those who object need to learn to lighten up and laugh a little. Even the best of us can use a good smearing once in a while.

(JH)

Get Smart

Movie title: Get Smart (2008)
Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13
Directors: Peter Segal
Producers: (Exec.) Bruce Berman, (Exec.) Steve Carell, Michael Ewing, Alex Gartner, Alan Glazer, (Exec.) Dana Goldberg, Andrew Lazar, (Exec.) Jimmy Miller, (Exec.) Brent O'Connor,
Charles Roven, (Exec.) Peter Segal
Starring: Steve Carell “Maxwell Smart,” Anne Hathaway “Agent 99,” Dwayne Johnson “Agent 23,” Alan Arkin “The Chief,” Terence Stamp “Siegfried,” Terry Crews “Agent 91,” David Koechner “Larabee,” James Caan “The President,” Bill Murray “Agent 13,” Patrick Warburton “Hymie,” Masi Oka “Bruce,” Nate Torrence “Lloyd,” Ken Davitian “Shtarker”
Genre: Comedy/Action
Summation: Maxwell Smart (Agent 86 for CONTROL) battles the evil forces of KAOS with the more-competent (and beautiful) Agent 99 at his side.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: cute

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The Forty Year Old Virgin’s Steve Carell (Maxwell Smart) is back, this time in a mildly funny but fairly entertaining secret agent parody, Get Smart. With co-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Agent 23) and Anne Hathaway (Agent 99), Smart is the agent-elect to save the world!

An evil organization known as KAOS, whose leader acquires nuclear weapons to establish power and rule the world, has infiltrated the U.S. database of CONTROL, a secret branch of the U.S. government responsible for the operation of spies. The cover of the agents is blown. Due to the crisis, the chief is forced to promote his analyst Maxwell Smart to the rank of agent. Smart, with his new and gorgeous (and far more competent) partner, Agent 99, the two strive to reclaim the world from the throws of death.

The movie struts its goods, but it doesn’t have all that much to strut. It’s not outrageously funny, and in not a few places it is quite stupid. You know things are going to be on shaky ground in a movie when Bill Murray does a cameo appearance as an agent assigned to hideout in a fake tree!

Get Smart is nicely cut and it moves along at just the right pace. The satire-enhancing secret agent gadgets are commendable and soften things up for the occasional laugh. The storyline deserves a few chuckles, like the two main villains (Terence Stamp, “Siegfried” and Ken Davitian, “Shtarker”) who contribute more than their share to the thin coat of comedy found in the movie.

My hat goes off to some truly funny moments throughout. The shoe phone was funny, as was the obese lady dancing scene, and a shot where Agent 86 is behind an unconscious Shtarker and is compelled to hoist up his big body (in a suggestive manner) to open the door. Those scenes, together with a few verbal exchanges, were funny—if only the director had made room for more of them!

What it could have had less of were some insulting clichéd takes, not the least of which is Smart getting knocked out by inhaling a blow-dart (how many times have we seen that tired old gag!), or a mouse coming from out of nowhere and crawling up the pant-leg of Smart as he’s about to cross under security laser beams.

When comedy is missing, the void is sometimes filled with silliness. And when the silliness shows up, it never comes off as funny. There are just not enough knee-slapping moments in the film to offset the borderline boredom or the oft-made retreats into wackiness.

Opinions differ on whether or not the movie identifies sufficiently with the original TV series Get Smart that ran from 1965-70. Not having seen the television show for myself, I can offer no opinion here. I leave it to the viewers of both the series and the movie to make that comparison for themselves.

Get Smart would be a good kid’s movie—minus the violence and some crude adult themes. But as it is, it makes an almost fitting family movie for families with more mature children.

I only wish more effort had been put into making an average summer fun film into a worthy belly-laugher, but it just didn’t happen. With Get Smart, we have a hopelessly average and, yes, “cute” comedy, but nothing more.

(JH)

Appaloosa

Movie title: Appaloosa (2008)
Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) (Recommended!)
Rated: R
Directors: Ed Harris
Producers: Ed Harris, Michael London (Exec.), Cotty Chubb (Exec.), Kathryn Himoff
Starring: Ed Harris “Virgil Cole,” Viggo Mortensen “Everitt Hitch,” Renee Zelweger “Allison French,” Jeremy Irons “Randall Bragg,” Timothy Spall “Phil Olson,” Lance Henriksen “Ring Shelton,” Tom Bauer “Abner Raines,” James Gammon “Earl May,” Ariadna Gil “Katie,” Gabriel Marantz “Joe Whittfield”
Genre: Drama/Western/Action
Summation: Two lawmen are employed by a town to keep the peace amidst an invasion of outlaws and a woman threatens to come between them.
Spoilers ahead: No
In a word: Authentic

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If you’re like me, your mind automatically runs to Clint Eastwood when you think of classic westerns. And when you see new western movies, you naturally compare them to older big-name movies, like Unforgiven (1992) and before that A Fist Full of Dollars (1964). But if you’re not like me, and you don’t happen to associate the likes of Eastwood with truly great westerns, that’s ok too. Appaloosa isn’t your typical western, and it doesn’t fit into the typical Eastwood mold.

Packed full of behavioral nuances, the film Appaloosa focuses on the lives of a Marshall and his deputy and a town by the name of Appaloosa. The town has been overrun with outlaws, and Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everitt Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are the “big gun” lawmen called in to deal with the problem. But the situation intensifies when a woman by the name of Allison French (Renee Zellweger) threatens to get in the way of the two men’s work and friendship. Character development in Appaloosa is awesome, as is the story, which runs along rather unpredictably, with great appeal and many powerful performances.

Life in Appaloosa, as portrayed in the movie, is very real to life for that day and time. A life-seasoned Marshall and his loyal deputy show great wisdom in handling some major life-or-death situations, and the two are prepared to die in the line of duty, unlike Eastwood’s character “William Munny” in Unforgiven who was just lucky at killing: “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killing folks.”

No, it’s not like that here. It’s the interpersonal nuances that matter in this movie, like love threatening to jinx a relationship, and men with less-than-decent manners (who don’t see anything wrong with asking an aptly polite woman if she is a whore) having to face, not just their enemies, but themselves. Lack of manners, as well as a lack of education was what the movie portrayed—and don’t let anyone tell you that the movie is jauvanistic or bigoted. It isn’t. There was a lot of that back then.

The makeup and dress aspects of the film are superb, as is the choreography at every scene. Stunning performances came in the acting of Harris, Mortensen, and Irons, but especially worthy of note is Renee Zellweger. Her mannerisms, simplicity, and yet duplicitously deviant nature as Allison French made her fit right into the 1800s mold with top-notch performance.

What made the movie great is also what seemed to be a shortcoming. The nuances and details of the film were so deep that it’s easy to step back and want a little more of something else. Indeed, more could have been happening. Though you care for the characters, you don’t care that much. At times, I wanted more of the simple stuff to appreciate (town violence, bad attitudes, and social commotion, etc.), but it wasn’t there. The story focuses to a fault on the dynamic of the woman and the punishment of one particular outlaw. The movie could have benefited by broadening its focus.

Some parts move more quickly than others, but the story is great. In many ways, I was reminded of Lonesome Dove as I watched. It may not be the best western ever made, but it is more than worthy to be classed among the better ones. So if you liked Tombstone and 3:10 to Yuma, chances are you’ll like Appaloosa, a very good modern western, where psychology and human relationships play a much bigger part than the “shoot ‘em up” aspect of things (though you’ll probably find plenty of that too).

(JH)

Mirrors: A Time to Reflect

Movie title: Mirrors (2008)
Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Directors: Alexandre Aja
Producers: Gregory Levasseur, Alexandra Milchan, Marc Sternberg, Arnon Milchan (Exec.), Kiefer Sutherland (Exec.), Marc S. Fischer (Exec.)
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland “Ben Carson,” Paula Patton “Amy Carson,” Amy Smart “Angela Carson”
Genre: Horror
Summation: Cop-turned-security guard Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) discovers that the mirrors in a closed-down department store mall that he is guarding are possessed of evil spirits and threaten him and his family.
Spoilers ahead: No

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My hat goes off to horror moviemakers. It’s a tough job. If you do it right, you make something that is memorably scary, that is unique, and that is in some sense logically plausible, causing the viewer to get the chills and say: “Wow! What if that happened to me?” You may be dealing with the supernatural, but the flow and details of the story still have to make sense. And think about it…how often does good, original horror movie material come along? Not often at all!

Horror movies that fail end up failing for a number of reasons, and these reasons usually fall into a select few categories; one, they are knock-offs of older, more successful films (i.e. I Am legend, 2008); two, they have too much gore, but not enough suspense and fear (i.e. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2006); three, they use good special affects in place of fear created from a good storyline (i.e. The haunting, 1999); fourth, they use pseudo-suspenseful garbage (i.e. graphic monsters or zombies loudly yelling and attacking, dead girls popping up and screaming, The Strangers, 2008). Perhaps it’s a combination of these factors, but in any case, when a horror movie bombs, it usually emanates from these things.

When a horror movie succeeds, on the other hand, it is always because the movie builds rock-solid suspense off of unknowns in the plot and (temporarily at least) “wows” the viewer into imagining said horrifying act(s) happening to them and making them cringe at the thought. Good horror doesn’t come from lots of blood and guts, nor from pretty special affects, nor from yelling and screaming, nor yet from evil hell-beasts chasing people from screenshot to screenshot. Good horror movies come from good writing.

Unfortunately, there is so much trash writing making the rounds that a great vacuum has been created on the big screen for worthily scary flicks. Most outright suck from the get-go and the rest leave somewhat of a fair amount to be desired. In Mirrors, we have a perfect example of the latter, with shotty, troublesome writing and mediocre everything else.

Was I scared? Yes, I’ll say I was. Seeing a reflection in a mirror of a boy refusing to follow the actions of the real boy is kind of scary. The ending gave me the creeps, as did seeing Sutherland acting like a madman, running around the house to get all the mirrors covered before more disaster struck. That was scary. The movie does generate some level of fear. The storyline is where most of the trouble lies. For instance, it is never really clear why the demon(s) got trapped in the mirrors. And what did the mirrors have to do with those who died in the burnt-down department store? See if you can figure it out. One thing I did figure out is that the horror premises in this movie suffered from a serious lack of structural support!

Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland) plays a former cop-turned-security guard recovering from alcoholism who ends up working security for the fallen store. He starts to hear noises and disturbing sounds, and soon finds the mirrors, mirrors that give him tormenting messages. More so at first than later on, the story moves rather slowly. And Sutherland’s acting was disappointing. He could have done better. Instead, he had the same mannerisms and behavioral characteristics that he has as Jack Bauer on 24. Even the repeated “damnit” swear and his grading panic voice sounded the same. Maybe this was done on purpose, but it only cheapened his performance. This was definitely a step down for him.

When the movie does manage to pick up the pace, it gets clumsy. Much of the story, while not cliché, is just bizarre, like indestructible mirrors that demons scribble messages onto, charging and attacking supernatural entities with great strength who desire to repossess devout nuns, evil beings who take on the mirror images of a woman and then proceed to ripping her mouth open in order to kill her…bizarre stuff.

There is a gore element in the film and a story that tries to hold one’s attention – and it does the job – but mostly just makes the audience squint with a “huh?” sort of reaction some of the time. Though not ridiculous, the plot borders on becoming so. It may have enough of a spook factor to become a memorable horror movie, but I doubt it. But let me be clear in saying that this was the scariest movie I can recall seeing in the last three years, and for that it gets a grade bump!

The ending is very chilling. On the fear scale, it’s way scarier than Friday the 13th and about as scary as The Village or The Blair Witch Project. Overall, the acting is fair, the choreography is okay, and the dialogue isn’t too bad. The special affects are very good. Riddled with bizarreness and some obstinate imperfections, Mirrors is still scary enough so that less-critical, dyed-in-the-wool horror fans might actually enjoy it. But for the rest of us, don’t expect too much.

(JH)

How does the rating system work?


A+ (4 stars) = Recommended. Immaculate, excellent, a must-see.

Movies of this caliber are rare, being masterfully done and as close as is possible to "flawless."



A- = Recommended.

A great, well-done movie that you should definitely see. Maybe it wasn't genre-redefining material. Maybe it wasn't oscar-winning, but it was superb nonetheless.



B+ (3 1/2 stars) = Recommended.

Aside from a few flaws, it's pretty good and worth seeing.



B- (3 stars) = Decent.

Maybe it'll float your boat and maybe it won't. Just depends on your taste.



C+ (2 1/2 stars) = Decent.

Average with a few good attributes. You won't hate it, but don't expect it to be particularly memorable.



C- (2 stars) = Hopelessly average.

No real redeeming qualities about it. An almost - if not complete - waste of time.



D+ (1 1/2 stars) = Viewer beware!

Pretty bad and certainly less than average. Will leave a bad taste in your mouth when you leave the theatre.



D- (1 star) = Viewer beware!

Pretty bad and then some! You've seen worse movies, but not that many.



F (0 stars) = Awful, a complete flop, a failure in it's genre and every other area as well.

A torturous and horrible film that is sure to make you regret seeing it. Viewer beware!!! A movie with this rating is almost guaranteed to rape your soul!

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